We—white folks with financial privilege—are bloated with excess and resistant to messages of our own abundance.
Scarcity, the quality or state of being scarce, means, or should mean, a legitimately low supply, not enough of something. Scarcity, legitimate and illegitimate, drives and modifies behaviors. The scarcity myth, which often seems inherent in white people, especially those with considerable economic mobility, is a posture—some would say a pretense—of scarcity, in spite of abundance. Scarcity, among other concepts and theories, powers capitalism in a three-part mythical refrain: “There’s not enough,” we say. “More is always better,” and we tell ourselves and each other this is right, the way it’s supposed to be, writes Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money.
These myths and concepts read almost like the history of whiteness itself: the death march of manifest destiny, global exploitation, colonization, capitalism, and oppression—a series of events and campaigns sustained and propelled by a refusal to acknowledge enoughness, and the attendant justification for actions taken to get more.
Without reflection or inquiry, we, white folks with financial privilege, also often choose not to see genuine scarcity—how untenable and hostile the world actually is for many people. It’s the way it’s supposed to be first trains us into an idea that some people are simply less deserving, and this helps to reinforce the idea that they’re less human. Humming in the background, these ideologies bring us to the default conclusion that white people are rightful beneficiaries of the Earth and its resources.
We often lack the ability, or even the desire, to express true solidarity or connect with people unlike ourselves; and we lose access to our own wholeness when we can’t or won’t see others as fully human. As our zeroes multiply and our wealth continues to accumulate, we dream of more and we become even more unseeing, unfeeling, and desensitized. Enough! cries a voice from the streets as it has for centuries, while we ourselves become less than human.
Those of us who hold privileges of race and class, as related to economic mobility or “wealth,” often have a hard time seeing, understanding, and feeling the enoughness of our resources. By “us,” I refer to white people with second homes and cabins, who vacation in Mexico and receive checks from their grandparents, who join the Peace Corps or take a gap year to see the world, whose parents are doctors and lawyers and CEOs; who attended private schools, hold multiple degrees—high earners themselves who work at non-profits but shop at co-ops. We’re individuals and families consistently, generationally, and quietly wealthy, yet not fantastically rich. We’re not the top one percent. We’re the top ten to fifteen percent.
White people of means understand philanthropy very well. We know the importance of giving our money, time, and energy, but the full-bodiedness necessary to act and live out these principles is often a bridge too far. The scarcity mindset constrains polite, wealthy white people who philosophically might support social justice movements and reparations, but who neither acknowledge nor leverage the potential of their own resources to support these movements or individuals in practical, tangible ways. We sit around reading article after article about reparations, then frown and prevaricate when asked to give from our abundance, thinking first of our retirement accounts, our upcoming vacations, and all the things we think we need, all the reasons to hold more tightly onto what we have.
I can talk a lot about how my class privilege has been passed down from intergenerational wealth and secured through white supremacy, but when I’m asked to shift from an abstract discussion about wealth inequality into action that will affect my life, well-exercised muscles contract. A curtain falls within myself, and separates my intellect and reasoning from my humanity, when I’m asked to contribute.
There are underlying and overlapping myths, and rules keep many white people locked into the scarcity concept and behaviors, so they’re important to tease apart: the common-sense dictum, Bill Gates has more money than I do; we don’t talk about our wealth; and, again, it’s not my job, anyway.
White people across all sectors (academia, journalism, business, education, etc.) have assumed the common-sense dictum for so long that it has become a collective subconscious reflex—a static posture as neutral agents with objective worldviews, benevolently deploying common sense. It’s yet another example of how whiteness always defaults to its constituents.
The common-sense dictum, however, is part of a delusional lens that positions white realities as somehow more objective and neutral, both in consideration of voices to include, and privileges to be cast as universally representative. The common-sense dictum is rampant among white cisgender men, but also held by white folks with wealth and class privileges, or even just moderate economic mobility. This myth keeps BIPOC voices out of academic journals and many conversations.
The common-sense dictum tells us that our retirement accounts are all we need, that money in excess is what saves us, not community. I’m repeatedly reminded within myself and by other white people of the logic and importance of building my retirement account, putting away X amount of my income. It’s just good sense, we say. By positioning white people’s voices and views as objective, this common-sense dictum supports the pretense, the “objective” truth, that our unique set of financial and economic privileges were hard-earned and merit-based, universal even, that everyone possesses the same opportunities. Within the ragged cognitive dissonance that cultivates this idea is a deeply problematic message that the world will (and should) continue to prioritize white comfort, white lives, and white futures, that white abundance has been earned through good sense and hard work, and that our retirement accounts will actually be a thing decades from now. But to possess financial savings is not a simple matter of “common sense.” Let’s call it by its real name. It’s a flat-out privilege.
The common-sense dictum involves stern paternalistic finger-wagging. Whiteness teaches us that giving our money away is stupid, unrealistic, radical, and emotional—choose your flavor of shame!—and it slaps us on the wrist when we try to change our thinking, when we begin to consider redistributing our wealth. This dictum is used to gaslight and silence people who actually feel and understand the message of enoughness—those who know that when catastrophes arise as they do in the lives of all human beings, it’s inhumane to hoard money and other resources while others of different races, abilities, genders, and income-levels drown in debt and are unable to put food on the table.
Instead of carrying on the pretense about how sudden illness shouldn’t represent financial catastrophe for anyone, including those who don’t share our privileges, we must readily acknowledge and consider the ways in which resources held by most white people insulate us from those crises regularly experienced by others. Countering this rigid yet ironically “objective” concept requires a more realistic worldview and a softer way of being and listening, with the understanding that community and interconnectedness are what cradles us, are what saves us.
It’s within the practice of interconnectedness that we’re experiencing scarcity. Everyone deserves safety nets.
Bloated savings accounts are neither realistic, achievable, nor even average in our society. Less than forty-five percent of Americans actually have ANY savings and most people are, in fact, wracked by debt. Within financially privileged communities, there’s lots of holding forth on the good sense of robust savings and retirement accounts, but the fact is, the small percentage of us without debt and more than $1,000 in savings must realize our privilege. If you have a healthy savings account that could not only see you through several emergencies, but could also facilitate plane trips, yoga retreats, and camping trips, you’re a goddamn unicorn.
Given the jaw-dropping privileges that come with being born with white skin, it’s difficult to see our accomplishments or comforts in a vacuum. When we credit our accumulations to merit and hard work alone, we are denying the whole truth, the reasons why some of us white people have so much more. Wealth is not an outcome of common sense. A lot of this white abundance is attributed not to hard work, but to the exploitation of others which has both created and built intergenerational wealth. Most of us white people have only to look back a few generations to identify and chart the circumstances that have provided our upper- and middle-class housing, advanced education, six-figure incomes, trips to Thailand. Maybe it’s in the ways our grandparents benefited from the GI bill and redlining. Maybe our ancestors benefited from easy assimilation as ‘white’ immigrants.
The very white American rhetoric of good sense, the common-sense dictum, keeps us in the weeds. We need a full panoramic view to clearly see and accurately account for our advantages. The evidence is before us. It’s in the past and the present, and it’s important to acknowledge.
For some of us, looking at our ancestry brings discomfort, because we come face-to-face with evidence of enslavement and ownership of Black people. Far back in one branch of my family tree are poor prison debtors from England who migrated to Georgia, the American South, lived hard-scrabble lives then, some generations later, enslaved Black people.
But Bill Gates (or any other obscenely wealthy person) has more money than I do—another thought pattern that upholds the scarcity mindset. The wealth of others can prompt a kind of wealth competition that is both coddling and delusional and, again, it protects us from seeing exactly what we have. Because we live in a world where the basic needs of most people are not met, it’s senseless to make comparisons between wealthy white people and fantastically rich white people. If we must compare resources, let’s take a more accurate measurement. Let’s compare ourselves to the patients and students we serve, the human beings living in tents outside of our luxury apartments. Other realistic measuring sticks for wealth can be found here, here, and here. Still, while such tools can be helpful to dispel delusion, what this moment needs is abdication, not comparison.
As long as we don’t talk about our money or resources, they remain invisible and we remain less likely to share. As we assimilate deeper into whiteness, accruing its benefits, it thrives in our own decontextualized, disembodied boot-strap rhetoric.
Across the country, incredibly privileged individuals and families continue to shield their wealth and pass as average people. Passing as ‘normal’ or middle class might entail excluding other relevant indicators from a reckoning of our actual class privilege. We might myopically focus on income which isn’t the same as taking full inventory of our larger wealth and class experience. Children in wealthy families often grow up confused about their class status and are more likely to also adopt a scarcity mindset.
For example, as a young college graduate joining the Peace Corps, it was easy for me to be reductionist about my class privilege because, on paper, I was just another millennial making $400 a month during a global recession, but on closer examination, this ability to volunteer and travel was supported by many invisible realities: zero college debt, a college degree, multiple safety nets, savings accounts, a place to live when I came home, connections to jobs, support from my parents and grandparents. My future opportunities and security upon returning would be rosy for all the same reasons.
Whether in conversation with similarly resourced folks or when in community with folks of different class backgrounds, something powerful happens when people are upfront about their access to resources. Whiteness is an aggregate of many different things, but primarily, it’s a shield or forcefield. It requires a human part of us to be buried and inaccessible. It can stunt, freeze, trap, and stop us from showing up fully. Even when it’s possible to see outside of our privilege, the white collective ‘neutral’ posture still supports the lie of doe-eyed cluelessness masquerading as objectivity; but in candid, vulnerable conversations about wealth and class privilege, we’re able to start to break through this protective barrier. We’re able to begin to connect with ourselves and with others, and lots of beautiful things can happen.
A dear friend and I started to talk about our different class backgrounds, how much money sat in our bank accounts, and why. It was glaringly obvious how money seemed to accumulate for me and disappear for her. A teacher like me, she would have loved to participate in a master’s program, as I had. When I started having conversations about money and my own relationship to it, I felt control start to slip away, but also a fullness I didn’t know was possible, that has grown over time. Through these conversations, we started to understand how I actually could contribute to a future house down payment for my friend, not as a gift, but as a clear-eyed acknowledgment of our different class positions. In the conversation where we came to this realization, nothing about it was planned. It was simply her and I, sitting around a campfire, and then this sudden thought that I could make a different choice and assume responsibility. The choice to redistribute this money wasn’t made without emotion. There was no simple “on” or “off” switch. I felt completely engaged, exhilarated, and terrified.
What works for me might not work for you, but let’s wake up to this responsibility. These reckonings and honest conversations are a necessary first step toward being able to take action and live in a more integrated way. We all need our own ways of countering these myths and rules so that we can live our values and move resources.
But It’s not my job we say. I can’t do anything. I’m just one person. Holding strong to these positions is both comfortable and customary for us. Many white people say they believe it’s not the individual but the government that is responsible for righting economic and racial wrongs of the past; and even when white people start talking about their money, rarely do we acknowledge The System that has benefited white people by redirecting uneven shares of the earth’s goods to us over generations. Of course, the government should pay reparations (and more), but to see ourselves as blameless, to pretend that our actions toward others have been inconsequential, as if we aren’t all profiting from centuries of oppression and privilege, trying our best to ignore this in our day-to-day lives, that’s repulsive and terrifying.
The world and our lives can be charted to and changed through small, fractal, everyday ways of living and interacting. Adrienne Maree Brown explains this interdependence, using oak trees to illustrate our evolving symmetry:
We are constantly impacting and changing our civilization – each other, ourselves, intimates, strangers. and in that reality, we are working to recreate a world that is by its very nature in a constant state of change. […] Oak trees don’t set an intention to listen to each other better, or agree to hold tight to each other when the next storm comes. under the earth always they reach for each other, they grow such that their roots are intertwined [and] create a system of strength which is as resilient on a sunny day as it is in a hurricane.
Firmly ensconced within our force fields, we avoid eye contact, refusing to live in the knowledge of abundance, refusing to see that we belong to each other.
But we can help one another to acknowledge our collective roots and a new world that we can create together. For several years now, my growth through Resource Generation has enabled this conversation with myself and with others about wealth and resources. The organization teaches the vital practice of abundance on a personal level and organizes wealthy (or wealth-adjacent) people to share their resources:
At Resource Generation, when we talk about wealth redistribution, it is a harm reduction strategy. It’s a recognition that the system is set up so that wealth will magically keep accumulating itself unless it’s actively redistributed (it’s like debt, only in reverse). Redistribution means circulating rather than hoarding [excess] wealth, and it is one of the lowest rungs on the ladder: a tangible way for people with wealth to practice solidarity with poor and working-class communities. It’s a crucial starting place, not one that needs to be overly-glamorized or intensified, just a thing to do.
We can hold both of these truths at once: The System needs to be changed, and we should practice the future we dream of now as we fight for that change. Clearly, redistribution of wealth is our job and a way to live in solidarity. If you’re 18 to 35 years old with class privilege or access to wealth, consider joining Resource Generation or Solidaire Network.
Brown writes that responsibility is thinking, feeling, and behaving as part of “a whole, separate, aligned, cohesive, critically connected,” and that our futures depend on one another, not an IRA. About the relationship between our money and our emotions, Lynne Twist writes:
We each have the choice in any setting to step back and let go of the mind-set of scarcity. Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency. By sufficiency, I don’t mean a quantity of anything. Sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.
Above all, this is about overcoming fear and relinquishing our place on top, our privileges of race and class, to experience the equitable world and way of life that await us on the other side.
- Transform Fear into Community
- How to Overcome the “Scarcity Mindset”
- Black Lives Matter Actions
ILSE GRIFFIN received her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her MA in TESOL/Linguistics from Hamline University, and a Graduate Certificate in Teaching Writing from Mankato State University. She teaches English at home and abroad, and has been published in Where is the River, Funny Looking Dog Quarterly, Pif Magazine, Talking Stick, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Bending Genres Journal. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.